Handsworth and other memories of Mary Finnegan nee Woodward

I was born in Booth Street in 1956. The house was since demolished to make way for the new school on Holyhead road. My mother was born in the same house and was given it when she married dad. We moved to Alexander Ave not long after.

Dad was 4th generation Anglo Indian, last of his English born family before him was 1790s in London. He came to England just after independence and lived in a catholic boarding house in the rd opposite the church by Handsworth Park. My earliest memories are of Handsworth Park, picnics, with a flask of tea and sandwiches by the bandstand and watching dad play tennis, he was pretty good. He worked in a factory in Smethwick that made bikes I believe and won the annual tournament there - he said much to the chagrin of the office wallahs! Sunday afternoons we would walk down to Soho Road to buy sweets from the shop which I think was called the 99 shop? Anyone know? I remember one day walking along Booth Street (we had moved to Alexander Avenue then) and seeing what were probably the first Indian immigrants to Handsworth. They were painting the exterior of a house, and I can still remember asking dad why they were wearing pyjamas! They were in Indian attire - I got my first lesson in racial relations at that point, he explained to me who they were, why they dressed that way. Then just down the avenue in the adjacent cul de sac the first West Indian family I encountered moved in. They were lovely, I still remember their first names the kids were Anthony and Sisters Patsy and Pauline, and I wonder whatever happened to them.

We had a polish family down the road; I have no idea how to spell their name - their dad used to talk to us about the salt mines there. We had Irish families too of course. At the top of the gulley that led to Booth Street and at the bottom of the street on Alexander Road, lived many families that mom and dad did not want us to mix with, they may have created a child that was racially tolerant, but maybe a snooty one too ! Those children were more unkempt and appeared to have lots of babies always. As we were older and left to play in the cul de sac, the top of the avenue became our imaginary world. We had a large (seemed at the time) wall that separated the gulley from the avenue and it was our castle, horses, mountains, whatever it needed to be as a backdrop for our adventures after we got back from ABC minor Saturday mornings at the pictures down at the Regal. It was 6d for downstairs and 9d for upstairs. We kept the spare 3d and purchased Kiora squash or a choc ice. During the film kids would flick triangles of lolly sticks over our heads.

Shopping with mom on Soho Road was fun, looking at the cakes in the bakery windows, Smiths and Firkins - where we would get cream horns or ice buns or coconut chocolate cakes. The market with veggies set outside and inside it was dark and interesting. I would love to stop and look at the travel agent windows, posters of faraway places - I think I got the nomad bug there, love travelling left England but love to come back still. Sundays if we strolled a longer distance down Soho Rd, early evening in summer, we would pass the Methodist church and it would be spilling out with the bright and colourful Island immigrants and families from Sunday service, they all looked so exotic to me and fascinating. We were most likely on our way to the Gun Barrels or another pub down Soho Road so dad could have a pint with his pals. We would sit outside with a glass of pop and packet of crisps - it is amazing how the smell of beer still conjures up a good memory feeling for me from those days.

I can remember going to the clinic by Hodgsons funeral home for sweet tasting immunisations. Then there came the Chicken Inn - the smell of chicken from there was heavenly. Funny I don’t remember actually eating it though.

As we got older, and had started school - we walked to Woodville School on Holyhead Road every day - by ourselves - the Chinese takeaway opened. This was great, we were introduced to this food soon, as dad had served in RAF in Far East and in India Chinese food was commonplace. We had already got curry in our diets thanks to dad teaching mom, so I believe we were probably one of the first white families in Birmingham to be aware of other ethnic foods. I would love going down to Woolworths and drinking in all the wares on show that we could not afford, but 'window shopped’. I loved that arcade there at the side of woollies I think there was a dance studio there. There was a great fish and chip shop up by the Milestone - also gone I assume for that school. It had a lighthouse in the window. When mom went back to work - at Norton’s, then eventually the GPO - where dad went to work also, we had a child minder - what a terror she was. Mrs A - lived in Alfred Road - we hated that place. She had a 'stick' in the corner - we had never been hit and it was a scary thing. She had a son that went to Woodville with us. He was overweight and always had dreadful wind - funny how you remember that! We would leave her house walk down Rookery Rd, past the model shop - fascinating place, small inside, tons of boxes of Airfix kits. Past the Newsagents that became Rhodes' and Keith and Chris Rhodes eventually went to Woodville too.

Then up Regent Road, to Sandwell, over and through the wreck of the Albion Cinema and up to Woodville. This was less than a mile but fraught with distractions. The 'duck egg' island in the middle of Regent and Westbourne roads, the easily accessible cinema and endless trees to mess with. Being in the private school brown uniforms - poo clothes the rookery rd kids would refer to it as, we were targets, so moving in a pack of half a dozen was a good thing.

We all got collared one day by Miss Parker our head mistress as we were playing in the cinema and got nabbed by a teacher. We got roasted and for the next few weeks were frogmarched past the cinema and crossed over the Sandwell Road by Miss Parker resplendent in her fox fur coat with legs and tails hanging off it! School was very disciplined for us, but we liked it well enough. It was small and cosy and I returned there after leaving for KEGS to help out in holidays and she paid me my first paycheck which was about eight pounds! Summer holidays were a pleasure when we weren’t stuck at the Aldridge house, where meals were dreadful and we looked forward to Monday - soup and lemon top cakes - the rest of the stuff was awful, gristly meat, which we conveniently fed to her dog under the table, odd tasting shepherd’s pie. We had to sit in this little room, where we ate food too, were allowed out in the yard - tiny with outdoor toilet and no greenery, not allowed in front room and I have hated linoleum since that time. They had older children, one was married - probably very young with children, and suddenly the younger girl, who was at the school in church lane, one day was coming home with basket from cookery class and next day was getting married and pregnant! Those days when we did not have to be with the childminder we ran from Alexander Avenue, down to 'train spot' at Smethwick/Handsworth station and go to Black Patch Park. Past the wood yard and down that huge hill by Rugby Portland Cement works. We would be gone for hours and no one would worry. We were instructed at an early age to avoid strangers and so we avoided the guy who constantly hung around the public men’s urinal by the train bridge, and avoided the folks who offered us sweets, though I'm sure many were harmless enough, we kept away from the strange man in Handsworth Park who wanted to show us something interesting, so thankfully I am here to tell the tale. At some point a local priest must have harassed mom and dad about us not having our first holy communion, so we were packed off to 'instructions' which we hated, but the best thing was when we went to church services, they gave us pennies for the collection. Naturally we kept them and spent them over the road in the corner shop where the Irish owner served lemonade in a cup for a penny. Clearly she knew we all did that and profited from it royally. Our lst Holy Communion was taken at St Augustine’s and the best thing about it all was the huge breakfast we enjoyed after. I took my 11 plus at Rookery road school, where I met my lifelong friend Jane, who was a student there. We both went to KEGS in Rosehill Road and keep in touch these 40 plus years on. For some reason, being catholic excluded me from RE lessons, so I got to hang out in the library for 3 periods a week, doing very little. I loved being at KEGS, it was comfortable, old fashioned I suppose, and though I was not the most avid student, it was a good education. I saw through loss of milk bottles, moving to vending machines and decimalisation during that time. I took my first foreign holidays at school, to Italy, France and Switzerland, then later Sweden on exchanges. As we got older our social life changed of course, gone were the days of prowling streets to see famous acts arrive at the Plaza, go swimming at Handsworth baths, enjoying hot malted milk after with potato puffs, messing around in Handsworth park playing kiss chase, or occasionally when we had enough money, pitch and put at the Island Rd golf course, and a carton of strawberry or chocolate milk from the milk machine by Handsworth Dairies on the way home, stopping long enough by J B Woodward’s to harass their goat. The gun site and Wasson pool were intriguing places to head for when time and weather allowed too. We had moved to Albion Rd and I worked in Greens on the corner for a while, then in a hairdressers just off Holyhead Rd in Station Rd, Maison Bonne - dreadful place, dripping with damp, where I washed about 30 heads a day, made drinks for the blue rinses and got one pound fifty for the trouble. This I doubled in tips and then enjoyed the same lunch every Saturday from Baines, sausage roll, fresh cream trifle and packet of chicken crisps - ha could not eat that now! I had to wash all the towels and dry them at the launderette. I was always embarrassed to do this - the washing - this is what happens when you lived with a dad who had servants :) I'm a genius at folding towels today because of it though. Boys, drinking and pubs came along. After Albion Rd, mom and dad came up in the world and moved to the hill on Sandwell Rd, we had a 4 bedroom house! First time ever I had my own space. I would spend many long hours at Jane’s house in Bush Grove; we would sit in the garden, flirt with boys on the No 4 tee at the pitch and putt that abutted her property and drink sweet martini purchased with ease, from the outdoor at the bottom of Sandwell hill - at the tender age of 15. Evenings we would go to the Uplands where the 'major' was the licensee. He didn't care if we were underage, we drank contentedly and with restraint generally on vodka and limes or sweet martini and lemonades or even coca cola if we were broke. The jukebox was our entertainment, and we seemed to be ok with that. Eventually 'town' kicked in and nightclubs and everyone started moving off in different directions. I left KEGS and unless you wanted to go onto college - I did not - I was advised to go to secretarial school. Good Old Miss Parker from Woodville recommended Mildred Berry Secretarial School, in Cannon Street by the Parisienne, so there I went for six long months learning shorthand and typing. I still lived in Handsworth when I got my first job, I was temping at Wellman Incandescent for the sales manager's office, and they sold cremating ovens to china amongst other things. Then after a few temping jobs I got a role at Deritend Electrical in Aston. I was here for a number of years, met a guy, bought a house, and lived in Westbourne Rd for a while, till we parted. Eventually I moved to a job in Birmingham City Centre at the Grand Hotel, that was the start of many very happy and fun years working in the hotel industry. I stayed in Birmingham till after we married, living always close to Handsworth, my first own home was a flat in Hamstead Hall Road.

I worked at The Royal Angus, The West Brom Moat House, the Strathallan and my last hotel in Birmingham was as the Sales Manager when New Hall opened in the late 80s. Eventually I married and we lived for a while at a Bournville Village Trust community where my husband worked, then opened day nurseries in West Bromwich and finally moved to the USA in 1999. My parents now in late 80s still live in Handsworth Wood, and I recently took the children on a tour of the old places, we walked down Soho Road., visited King Edwards and drove the streets of Handsworth. Now very different, but still much is the same.

(KEGS) King Edwards Grammar School


Author Mary Finnegan nee Woodward